POSITIONAL AWARENESS 2020: WIDE RECEIVER

By RossWB on October 5, 2020 at 1:21 pm
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© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
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Positional Awareness is our annual rundown of the Iowa depth chart, from the position where we are most confident in what Kirk Ferentz intends to do to, well, quarterback.

Eligibility Remaining*    
No. Player Year Ht/Wt. Position 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024
6 Ihmir Smith-Marsette SR 6-1/179 Wide Receiver #2          
12 Brandon Smith SR 6-2/215 Wide Receiver #1          
19 Max Cooper SR 6-0/182 Wide Receiver          
9 Jack Combs JR 6-1/190 Wide Receiver          
16 Charlie Jones JR 5-11/187 Wide Receiver          
3 Tyrone Tracy Jr SO 5-11/203 Wide Receiver #4          
82 Calvin Lockett SO 6-2/183 Wide Receiver          
89 Nico Ragaini SO 6-0/193 Wide Receiver #3          
1 Nolan Donald FR(RS) 5-9/194 Wide Receiver          
29 Jackson Ritter FR(RS) 6-3/208 Wide Receiver          
30 Quinn Schulte FR (RS) 6-1/197 Wide Receiver          
81 Desmond Hutson FR (RS) 6-3/210 Wide Receiver          
83 Alec Kritta FR (RS) 5-11/190 Wide Receiver          
14 Quavon Matthews FR 5-11/168 Wide Receiver          
17 Wyatt Wegener FR 6-2/206 Wide Receiver          
18 Diante Vines FR 6-0/187 Wide Receiver          
26 Jamison Heinz FR 6-0/200 Wide Receiver          
27 Jack Johnson FR 6-0/190 Wide Receiver          
28 Isaiah Wagner FR 6-3/205 Wide Receiver          

* These are their current eligibility status, but the NCAA's decision to grant a blanket eligibility waiver to fall athletes (even those who compete this year... which is essentially just football players) mean that everyone here would also have a year of eligibility to use next year. We'll have to wait and see how that decision impacts things moving forward. 

THE OUTSIDE MAN

BRANDON SMITH (#12, Senior, 6'2", 215 lbs, Lake Cormorant, Lake Cormorant, MS)

Smith didn't lead Iowa in catches (that was Ragaini, with 46) or receiving yards (that was Smith-Marsette, with 722). But he did tie for the team lead in receiving touchdowns (5, with ISM) and his 4.1 receptions per game led the team on a per-game average, suggesting that he very well might have led the team in receptions if he hadn't missed four games due to injury. Smith began emerging as a consistent target for Iowa as a sophomore in 2018, when he had 28 catches for 361 yards and two touchdowns. One of those two scores, a one-handed grab against Maryland, was a particularly impressive display of his gifts: 

So Smith entered 2019 as one of Iowa's top options in the passing game and after a somewhat slow start, really seemed to be gaining steam toward the middle of the year. He had seven catches for 86 yards and a spectacularly athletic touchdown grab against Penn State: 

And he followed that up with his best day in an Iowa jersey: nine catches for 106 yards against Purdue. Alas, injuries kept him out of four of the next five games entirely and in the other game (against Minnesota) he only appeared as a decoy. He was finally healthy by the Holiday Bowl, though, and picked up four catches for 32 yards and a touchdown in Iowa's blowout win. 

Smith's calling card as a receiver is his prodigious athleticism. He doesn't have blazing speed, but his speed is solid and he's improved his ability to get separation from defenders. He also has outstanding leaping ability, as well as excellent body control, which has enabled him to make some very difficult catches. He'll need to make the easy grabs in addition to the difficult, highlight-reel catches, but there's little reason to think that he won't be able to do that for Iowa this season. A healthy Brandon Smith will give Iowa a playmaker on the outside who can provide steady production and sprinkle in dynamic action as well. 

THE ROCKET MAN 

IHMIR SMITH-MARSETTE (#6, Senior, 6'1", 179 lbs, Weequahic, Newark, NJ)

Ihmir Smith-Marsette is the most exciting Iowa player... of the 2010s? Of the Kirk Ferentz Era? Since Tim Dwight? You decide which description fits him best. ISM had flashed a lot of big play potential in his first two seasons at Iowa, but he put it together to become a consistent big play weapon last season. 

ISM saw spot duty as a freshman in 2017, making 18 catches for 187 yards and two touchdowns. His most memorable moments probably came in Iowa's thriller against Iowa State, when Smith-Marsette hauled in the winning touchdown catch in overtime. He remained an exciting, if lightly-used, weapon in 2018, when he had 23 catches for 361 yards and three scores. He was emerging as a legit big-play threat (as evidenced by his 15.7 yards per catch average), but his production was sporadic; he had eight games with one or fewer catches that year. Receiver production is a complicated thing; they're at the mercy of coaches who decide who gets to be on the field and a quarterback who decides where the ball goes, but ultimately consistency was a problem for ISM in 2018.

Consistency was much less of a problem for Smith-Marsette in 2019, it's fair to say. He set career highs in receptions (44), receiving yards (722), and touchdowns (5). He had at least three catches in every game except, weirdly, his last two (against Nebraska and USC), when he had a combined three catches. He did score rushing touchdowns in each of those games, though, highlighting just what makes him so dangerous: he's an incredibly versatile and dynamic playmaker, able to create big plays through the air, on the ground, and in the return game (he also had kick returns for touchdowns against both Nebraska and USC). The USC game was probably the apex of Smith-Marsette's versatility, as he scored a touchdown as a receiver, a runner, and a returner in igniting Iowa's rout of the Trojans. 

All three touchdowns are pretty much The ISM Show, too. The first comes on an end-around; Iowa seals the edge well, but it's Smith-Marsette's speed and ability to get to the corner that enables it to be a touchdown. The second comes on a kick return; it's again blocked well by the rest of Iowa's coverage unit, but the play becomes a touchdown because Smith-Marsette is able to make one defender miss -- and then can turn on the jets when he hits the open field. The third score comes on a tunnel screen pass; like the others it's blocked well (shouts to the Iowa receivers for their blocking ability), but it's a touchdown because of Smith-Marsette's burst when he catches the ball and hits the hole. 

But Smith-Marsette has also improved his route-running and he can use his prodigious speed to catch the ball on big air passing plays as well, as he did against Rutgers last year: 

Again, Smith-Marsette is the most dynamic playmaker Iowa has had in... uh, a very, very long time. His ability to impact the game as a runner, a receiver, and a returner makes him a threat any time he steps on the field. Iowa's goal in 2020 should be to ensure that he gets at least 8-12 touches per game, in various capacities; he has the ability to break a game open every time he touches the ball, so make sure he has ample opportunities to do just that. Now let's just sit back and watch 10 minutes of ISM highlights: 

THE MULTI-THREAT

TYRONE TRACY, JR. (#3, Sophomore, 5'11", 203 lbs, Decatur Central, Camby, IN)

Tracy was one of the most exciting members of Iowa's 2018 recruiting class, but he took advantage of the recent NCAA rule that allows football players to play in up to four games and still use a redshirt. He saw action in four games in 2018, but didn't record any catches. He remained an intriguing option entering 2019, but we still didn't quite know what to expect from him. All we got was a player who finished second on the team in receiving yards and proved to be the most explosive playmaker in the Iowa offense this side of Ihmir Smith-Marsette. 

Tracy finished 2019 with 36 catches for 589 yards and three touchdowns, as well as six carries for 39 yards and another score. Tracy's versatility and threat in the running game was something that emerged as the season went on; he had one carry in the first six games, and five in the last seven, including a carry in each of Iowa's final four games. I think we can expect to see Iowa continue to utilize Tracy in the running game, given his quickness and ability to make defenders miss.

But Tracy will make his bread and butter catching passes and, fortunately, it looks like he's pretty good at that. Tracy really blossomed toward the end of the season; he first turned heads with a 50-yard touchdown catch against Northwestern that featured him hitting the spin cycle and putting the entire Northwestern defense on tilt.

He also had a 75-yard catch and run touchdown in Iowa's almost-comeback against Wisconsin, part of a five catch, 130-yard day. 

And he had six catches for 77 yards against Minnesota and six catches for 56 yards against Illinois. All told, almost half of his catches came in a three-game span. It should be noted, of course, that those big performances happened in games that Brandon Smith missed due to injury; Tracy was the next man in when Smith went down and he performed very admirably in that role. His performance was far quieter in games with a healthy Brandon Smith on the field and it does raise the question of what role he'll have in the passing game if Iowa has a healthy Smith and Smith-Marsette all season. Does the Iowa passing game have the volume to support big production for three receivers? Probably not. But Tracy has shown that he's too talented to keep under wraps, so here's hoping that Iowa finds ways to keep him involved on offense. 

THE SLOT GUY

NICO RAGAINI (#89, Sophomore, 6'0", 193 lbs, Avon Old Farms Prep/Notre Dame, East Haven, CT)

Iowa's passing game needs that guy who can sit down in the slot and haul in catches to keep the chains moving and drives ticking along. In the past guys like Kevonte Martin-Manley, Matt VandeBerg, and Riley McCarron served in that role; Nico Ragaini filled those shoes last year and looks set to do so for the next few seasons. Ragaini ended up leading Iowa in receptions last year, though it was a narrow lead -- he had just two more catches than Smith-Marsette and likely would have had fewer than Brandon Smith had Smith been able to play a full season.

Ragaini ended the year with 46 receptions for 439 yards and a pair of touchdowns (which came in back-to-back games, against Wisconsin and Minnesota). As those stats suggest, Ragaini wasn't much of a big play guy -- he averaged just 9.5 yards per catch. That said, Iowa doesn't need big plays out of Ragaini -- they have ISM, Smith, and Tracy to provide that in the passing game. They need someone who can run crisp routes, sit down in holes in zone coverage, and consistently catch the ball. The early evidence suggests Nico can be that guy. 

WHILE YOU WAIT FOR THE OTHERS

CALVIN LOCKETT (#82, Sophomore, 6'2", 183 lbs, Largo, Largo, FL)
DESMOND HUTSON (#81, Freshman (RS), 6'3", 210 lbs, Raytown, Raytown, MO)
QUAVON MATTHEWS (#14, Freshman, 5'11", 168 lbs, Largo, Largo, FL)
DIANTE VINES (#18, Freshman, 6'0", 187 lbs, The Taft School, Danbury, CT)

As noted above, Smith-Marsette and Smith are both seniors and unlikely to be back next season (even with this year's wonky eligibility situation). They're going to leave big shoes to fill and while Tyrone Tracy will likely ascend to the top spot on the depth chart in their absence, there will still be a spot for at least one of these guys as well. Lockett and Hutson appear to be the favorites, given their experience advantage. At 6'3", 210 lbs, Hutson could be able to replace Smith's physical presence on the outside, though he doesn't appear to have Smith's incredible leaping ability or body control. Lockett has had few opportunities at Iowa while stuck behind ISM and Smith and he got jumped by a true freshman Tracy last season, but his speed could make him an intriguing option. Matthews and Vines are true freshmen and highly unlikely to make a dent in the rotation this year, given their lack of practice experience and unfamiliarity with the Iowa playbook. By next fall, though, that could be a different story. Matthews is slight, but has ferocious speed, while Vines looks like a player who might be able to contribute on the outside or in the slot. 

MAX COOPER (#19, Senior, 6'0", 192 lbs, Catholic Memorial, Waukesha, WI)
CHARLIE JONES (#16, Junior, 5'11", 187 lbs, Deerfield/Buffalo, Deerfield, IL)
JACK COMBS (#9, Junior, 6'1", 190 lbs, East Grand Rapids/Central Michigan, Grand Rapids, MI)

Cooper has caught four passes for 12 yards in his Iowa career to date. He appears stuck behind a slew of other talented receivers on the depth chart and in the rotation, so the odds of him seeing notable playing time are probably not great. But if anyone in this group is primed to be one of the "senior stories" that Ferentz loves to champion, it would be Cooper. 

Jones and Combs are intriguing stories; both transferred from MAC schools (Buffalo for Jones and Central Michigan for Combs) and sat out the 2019 season. Jones was productive at Buffalo in 2018, hauling in 18 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns. Combs put up much quieter numbers at Central Michigan that season, catching three passes for 27 yards and a touchdown. Iowa added them as transfers before ISM and Smith leveled up to become Iowa's best receiving duo in at least a decade as juniors and before Ragaini and Tracy had breakout freshman seasons. Which is to say, Iowa added them at a time when there was a lot of uncertainty at the receiver position; a year later, that uncertainty has been replaced by production and excitement, which may result in fewer opportunities for Jones and Combs. That said, both guys are set to have at least a year of eligibility after this one, so they could yet emerge as key cogs in the Iowa passing attack. 

THEY WERE ONLY FRESHMEN

NOLAN DONALD (#1, Freshman (RS), 5'9", 194 lbs, Morton, Morton, IL)
WYATT WEGENER (#17, Freshman, 6'2", 206 lbs, Algona, Algona, IA)
JAMISON HEINZ (#26, Freshman, 6'0", 200 lbs, Humboldt, Humboldt, IA)
JACK JOHNSON (#27, Freshman, 6'0", 190 lbs, Valley, West Des Moines, IA)
ISAIAH WAGNER (#28, Freshman, 6'3", 205 lbs, Southeast Polk, Pleasant Hill, IA)
JACKSON RITTER (#29, Freshman (RS), 6'3", 208 lbs, Lincoln-Way East, Frankfurt, IL)
QUINN SCHULTE (#30, Freshman (RS), 6'1", 197 lbs, Xavier, Cedar Rapids, IA)
ALEC KRITTA (#83, Freshman (RS), 5'11", 190 lbs, St. Charles North, St, Charles, IL)

All hail the walk-on battalion. Given Iowa's history at the position, it's not unthinkable for one of these guys to emerge as a significant part of the Iowa passing game at some point; Matt VandeBerg and Riley McCarron started their Iowa journeys as walk-ons and became highly-used elements of the Iowa passing attack before their careers were over. That said, recruitment and development of scholarship wide receiver position has seen an uptick since Kelton Copeland took over the wide receiver coaching duties, so there may be fewer opportunities for a walk-on to crack the rotation. Time will tell. 

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